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Writing a Novel During a Pandemic

On Leap Year weekend this past February, I had no way to predict that it would be my last time to hang out face-to-face with my family for a long while. We were all in Baton Rouge, celebrating my nephew’s wedding. Stephen’s last name—Knight—set the tone for the evening with an “Oh, What a Knight” theme, based on the 1975 Four Seasons hit, “December 1963/Oh, What a Night.” And indeed, it was a fantastic night (aka/Knight).

Stephen and Paige KNIGHT, sealing it with a kiss. Credit: The Roberts Photo/Andy Roberts.

I mean, how does one plan an outdoor wedding and pull it off without a hitch? Stephen and Paige did just that. The weather was gorgeous, not a cloud in the sky, and an acoustic guitar player set a natural mood for the breezy ceremony. We ate Louisiana cuisine—yum!—and danced all night (aka/Knight) to the Groove Factor Band. [By the way, hire them if you are planning a wedding or event… they’re amazing!]

It was a beautiful weekend, watching this young couple start their lives and future together. We all hugged and said our goodbyes, and my husband and I returned to Houston. Within the next few days and weeks, news of the coronavirus pandemic began ramping up. Sure, I had heard way back in January that it was declared a global health emergency, but I was still feeling safely insulated in Texas. In mid-February, for instance, the virus was given a name, Covid-19, but I wasn’t worried yet. Ignorance is bliss, as the poet Thomas Gray wrote.

By the end of March, however, stock markets had plunged, U.S. schools and businesses shuttered their doors, and stay-home directives were in place. New terminology like “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” and “relief bill” and “Zoom meetings” and “are you essential?” would become the norm. But back on that gorgeous Southern evening of February 29th, the Grahams and Knights and other wedding friends were leap-year dancing. Mask-free, glove-free… FREE. Before all the international debates began—should we close down, should we not, and what the heck is Sweden doing???—we were dancing our hearts out. Oh, what a night (aka/Knight).

Oh, what a neon-filled KNIGHT!
Credit: The Roberts Photo/Andy Roberts.

I came home from the wedding with a renewed dream and goal: finish my novel. It’s a middle-grade story that I got the inkling of an idea for in early 2018, or maybe even sooner. The details percolated in my brain for months, until I finally put pen to paper towards the end of the year… well, fingers to keyboard. Middle Grade (not to be mistaken with middle schoolers) is the name of a children’s literature genre for kids ages 8-12. Some people loosely call them chapter books, but that’s actually the name of yet another genre. Not confusing at all, right? HA!

My MG novel’s working title includes the word “Night”—which is kind of coincidentally cool, considering the awesome night theme I’ve got going here (aka/Knight). I’m not ready to publicly reveal the premise or theme of the story just yet, but I’m very excited about it. I wrote about a third of the novel during those early months, but then life got in the way, causing me to set it aside for way too long. I attended a fantastic small-group writer’s conference in September 2019, called Better Books, set at the beautiful EarthRise Retreat Center in Petaluma California. There, I received critical feedback on my very-rough draft from professional agents and fellow writers, and I flew back to Houston with a fervor to finish my novel. I knew I needed accountability, so, through a company called Author Accelerator, I hired a writing coach to help guide my plot and scenes and to push me on my deadlines. Thank you, Jen Braaskma for being the best writing coach I could ever hope for; and thank you, Jennie Nash, for having the vision to create Author Accelerator. You are both amazing.

When people were asked to self-isolate for the greater good, I decided to make my time at home count. I set up a makeshift office in my dining room—the one spot where I can best see people walking and biking along my beautiful tree-lined street. And I started writing. Writing. Writing. Writing. For me, it’s an urge I can’t escape… a muse who never leaves me… an inexhaustible source of magic. (Not to sound dramatic, lol!) And so, there I found myself, every day, at my laptop writing during a pandemic.

My Post-it Note writing view of late.

Fingers crossed, I should finish this manuscript in June. Then, I’ll show it to my critique partners and beta readers… as well as to my hubby, best friends and close family (simply because I enjoy hearing their biased praise about how awesome I am—they love me far too much to be purely objective). After that, I’ll likely send it off to a particular editor who, at that conference in Petaluma, asked to see it upon completion. [Dream Big!]

Like so many, I haven’t hugged my parents in well over two months, preferring instead to visit in front-yard chairs spaced six feet apart. I haven’t had a haircut, haven’t eaten with friends at a restaurant, and haven’t bought groceries without a healthy dollop of hand-sanitizer at the ready. And like you, I’ve worried ad nauseam about the millions of Americans who filed for unemployment, about bankrupted businesses, about all the children, about our leaders, about our front-line healthcare professionals, and about the death toll. I’ve struggled with a daily mental ping-pong tournament as to what I personally believe to be the right course of action.

My dear friend Tammy Kic has sewn and given away (for free!) over 1,120 masks, to date. She’s been donating the monetary tips people give her, raising over $1,000 (and counting) for The Star of Hope homeless shelter in Houston. She’s amazing, and I love my fabric heart mask. 🙂

But despite everything, I feel accomplished. I’ll have something to show for this emotionally heavy period in history… the time in my life that the world shut down.

The words to that happy, vibrant song keep echoing in my mind and heart:

Oh, what a night

Why’d it take so long to see the light?

Seemed so wrong, but now it seems so right

… Sweet surrender, what a night (aka/Knight).

BE AMAZING!

Happy Drops of Validation

In the deep sea of rejection that writing often brings, it sure is nice to get a bit of occasional validation. I’ve been querying literary agents; I’ve received nibbles here and there, a few requests, but no official bites yet. No contract. So, imagine my surprise when I received an email last week saying I was a finalist in a writing contest.

I can’t wait to wear my ribbon-adorned badge in June! 😉

I entered my unpublished work-in-progress, A Night Without Light, in the Writers’ League of Texas 2019 Manuscript Contest, and I was named one of the finalists in the middle grade category. Congratulations to the tip-top winner in our section, Jennifer Voigt Kaplan of New Jersey, and to the other three finalists! As part of this win, I’ll get a special ribbon on my badge noting me as a MG finalist at the WLT Agents and Editors Conference. That’s right … you heard me … RIBBON POWER! I shall wield a heavy ribbon-esque sword this summer, and I can’t wait.

I smile when I read or write middle grade fiction!

Middle Grade is a genre of writing for children ages 8-12, and as Buddy the Elf would say, “It’s my favorite!” It can be tricky to write because there is such a wide range of reading and maturity levels in this age group. Adolescence is hovering in their future, but they still have an adorable innocence that makes these books so fun to write. The WLT manuscript win doesn’t mean my story will be published — not by a long shot — but it’s a small step in the right direction.

One of my Houston critique partners refers to these kind of honors as “multipliers” — i.e., accolades that help open doors. I love that term (thanks, Sylvia!), and I plan to seek out more such gate passages! And speaking of my critique group, we’ve begun to overflow with validation. Two of my partners were recently signed by agents and another received an R&R, which means an agent asked her to revise and resubmit her manuscript. The support we give each other is priceless, and I’m so grateful to my team (you know who you are).

Tiger Drive, by award-winning author Teri Case.

The drops of validation sometimes take the form of a big bucket! Take it from my author publisher friend, Teri Case. She was named the GOLD winner in the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award in the Popular Fiction category for her breakout novel, Tiger Drive. Quite validating when you consider that Tiger Drive was initially rejected by a few agents; Teri rewrote the book some thirteen times before it became a reality. It must be “lucky 13” because I love the story which is based on a family full of secrets and four people who want to matter.

“A superb choice… ” —Kirkus Reviews

Teri is prolific! She launched her second novel, In the Doghouse: A Couple’s Breakup from Their Dog’s Point of View, on April 16, 2019. A big turnabout from her first novel, this one is based on a dog named Skip and how he helps his master (Lucy) navigate heartbreak as a pack. In the fall, Teri will have the first book of a “cozy” mystery series available with co-author, Lisa Manterfield, and her third book, Imogene, will be released in 2020.

I love a quote from Teri, who sums up this sense of affirmation so wisely: “Every day, over 1,000 self-published books are added to Amazon and mostly from people who aren’t career authors, who aren’t concerned about quality writing or appreciating the value of a reader’s precious time and money. I have to fight the stereotypes that everyday self-publishers create. Winning the Gold Benjamin Franklin Award for ‘excellence in content and design’ has been validating because it recognizes that I am a career author. And the award sends a signal to readers, librarians, and booksellers that I can rise above the noise and will continue to do so.”

Why thank you, Neil Patrick Harris!

Pay attention to your drops of validation, however they might arrive.

And don’t forget to BE AMAZING!

My First Podcast! Thank you, Dan Blank!

Celebrating my fiftieth school visit in October was a milestone that made me want to do cartwheels (if I still can?). I wrote a fun blog about it that you can READ HERE, and it was an amazing feeling to treat the school, Ridgemont Elementary of Houston, to a number of surprises that I had up my sleeve.

One surprise that I did not plan for or expect to receive was a PODCAST! After I posted a photo of myself holding two large gold FIVE-O balloons on Instagram, I almost immediately received a text from Dan Blank. He said he was fascinated that although my children’s book, Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, came out awhile ago (in 2016), he was impressed that I’d done such a good job of making it relevant. Of showing up. Of forging meaningful connections around it. WOW! That made my day! Dan then asked what I had learned along the way and what value I had realized from it. We chatted, and he said he’d like to feature me on his podcast.

Our interview is titled “Keeping a Book Alive (and selling thousands of copies) Two Years After Lauch” … and I love how it turned out. Hopefully you will, too. Here is a LINK  to listen. It’s about 34 minutes long, so grab a cup of coffee and a cookie before you click play. 😉

Let me rewind a bit to tell you who Dan is, in case you don’t know. Dan Blank is the founder of WE GROW MEDIA, and he helps writers and creative professionals share their stories and connect with their audience. He has collaborated with thousands of people via consulting, workshops, and courses. Additionally, he’s worked with amazing organizations such as Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Sesame Workshop, Workman Publishing, J. Walter Thompson, Abrams Books, Writers House, The Kenyon Review, Writer’s Digest, Library Journal, and many others.

Dan also facilitates the Creative Shift Mastermind, which I was fortunate enough to participate in twice. When you sign up for his Mastermind course, you join Dan and approximately ten other writers to find more time to create, hone your creative process, reach readers, and get accountability. The next session begins January 1, 2019, and you can sign up for it HERE!

Pick up your own copy of BE THE GATEWAY by Dan Blank. I loved this book!

Finally, Dan is the author of BE THE GATEWAY: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience. It’s available on Amazon, and HERE IS A LINK TO BUY IT. If you prefer Barnes & Noble, you can FOLLOW THIS LINK and order a copy. I purchased the book as soon as it came out, and several nuggets of wisdom jumped out at me. Like this, where Dan writes: “Be the gateway. Instead of framing the value of your work by how it performs in the market, you define it by how other people experience the world through your creative work—the stories and experiences you share, and the topics you talk about.” AND this statement resonated with me, too: “Reframe success so it isn’t about seeking validation from massive audiences, but rather how you reach one person.”

I also appreciate Dan’s suggestion that to find success, creative professionals must hone in on what matters more than anything else. Find the core part of what matters to you most. Don’t seek quick validation. Think about what you would fight to NOT lose. Dan continues:

“This is why millions of ‘clever ideas’ sit on hard drives, in the bottom of someone’s desk drawer and in the back of someone’s mind, never seeing the light of day. It is the reason why when someone has a huge smash hit with an idea, thousands of others say, ‘I thought of that years ago.’ Why did this one person succeed? Because they believed in it more. It was more core to their personal narrative of what mattered, and where they could devote their time, energy, and money. The person who succeeded waded through risk long after you would have said, ‘This is crazy … I’m not wading any further into this.'”

I talk about this very thing in Dan’s podcast. About how when I got the idea to write Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, it was a dream that grabbed me. A creative passion that I didn’t let go of—not for a minute—until I was holding the beautiful book in my hands. And since art often imitates life (or maybe, according to Oscar Wilde, it’s the other way around), my fictional character, Arthur Zarr, did the same thing. He didn’t know he was going to build an art car that day when he first glued an acorn to the front of his vehicle. It was just a snippet of an idea. An idea as small as the very acorn itself. But that idea grew and grew into an amazing art car, and as a result, Arthur made friends and found his community—his tribe—along the way. Here’s a quick link to buy ARTHUR ZARR’S AMAZING ART CAR.

My children’s picture book was released in 2016 and is still thriving!

And like my imaginary Arthur Zarr, I’ve found my tribe, too. Amazing friends I met through Dan’s Creative Shift Mastermind—Teri Case, Lisa Sinicki, Amanda Toler Woodward, Rupert Davies-Cooke, and Brian Joyner. People I met online or in person through various writing groups—Ellen Leventhal, Noelle Shawa, Rachel Kosoy, Ellen Rothberg, Lynn Abrams, Allison Zapata, and Shelley Kinder. Those I met in the trenches of book creation—Bill Megenhardt, Emily Calimlim, Paige Duke, Sheri Jacobs, Scott Sinnet, and Mackie Bushong. The many teachers and librarians who have supported me by inviting me to speak at their schools. Old friends I’ve known for years who share my passion for books and writing—Laura Holman-Byrne, Mary Ann Van Osdell, Pat and John Graham (Hi, Mom & Dad!), and so many others. And of course, I can’t forget ALL my fantastic new art car friends!

What are you passionate about? What creative push are you focused on today? Whatever it is … Be Amazing!

Fifty (school visits) is Nifty!

What better way to mark the day than with gold balloons?

Milestone alert! I recently celebrated my FIFTIETH school author visit! I’ve delivered my presentation so many times, I can practically do it in my sleep. Nevertheless, every visit feels fun and special. There’s always something new and different that comes up, which means no two visits are ever alike.

Take, for example, that one student who asked, “Why don’t you have a body guard since you’re supposedly so famous?” And the time an honest child informed me that I look older in person than I do in my poster’s marketing photo. Oh, and the really bold kid who wanted me to sign his forehead!

Those are some funny examples, but there are tender moments, too. “I can’t wait to go home and write a book” is a frequent and favorite comment I receive at most every school visit. The girls often tell me they love my necklace (it’s a little blue car charm) or that they love my dog (Cricket is featured in my presentation). I’ve even had some sad comments, like when a child comes up to tell me that he/she doesn’t have a mother (that has happened) or that their father passed away (that has happened, too). When that occurs, I know to just give the child a big hug. Silly, sweet, or sad—I cherish all of these experiences.

Dragonfly Whimzee and Penelope helped me celebrate my 50th school visit!

Reaching my 50th school visit felt important, so I decided to ring it in with STYLE! Houston’s amazing Ridgemont Elementary School in Fort Bend ISD was the school that happened to be my special fiftieth, and I invited not one but TWO art cars. Art car driver Elizabeth Burnham brought her purple furry “Penelope,” and Jada August brought her new painted art car called “Dragonfly Whimzee.” The kids LOVED them!

Jessica Edwards WON the door prize!

A girl at Ridgemont Elementary couldn’t wait to show me her leggings! CRICKET!

I also created a huge gift basket as a door prize (something I’ve never before done for a school visit). I filled it with numerous autographed books, candles, artwork, trinkets and chocolate—I mean, who doesn’t like chocolate? P.E. Coach Jessica Edwards was the lucky winner, and she made my day when she said, “Omg, I never win anything! Thank you!” Then she quickly took off to lock it up in her office for safekeeping, lol!

A roadrunner art car by Bill Megenhardt.

And finally, I gifted the school with an oversized custom drawing by my amazing illustrator, Bill Megenhardt. He drew Ridgemont’s roadrunner as he thought it might look in an art car parade! The students, faculty and staff went crazy for Bill’s creative rendition, which will forever hang in their library.

My 50th school visit at Ridgemont was a good day, and it reminded me of comedienne Molly Shannon as the infamous Sally O’Malley on Saturday Night Live: “I’m fifty! And I like to kick, stretch and kick! I’m fifty!” And that’s how I really feel … kicking my heels up (literally) each time I book another school visit … and streeeeeeetching myself to get outside of my comfort zone.

I can’t wait until the day that I get to post about my 100th school visit … stay tuned! And I hope you all keep kicking & stretching along with me.

~ Be amazing!

Wrangling Words and Authors!

The Texas Word Wrangler Festival, benefiting the Giddings Public Library and Cultural Center.

It’s never easy to travel out of town for a school or book engagement. I have to consider mileage/gas costs, hotel rates, meals, and other logistics. But when I was invited to feature my children’s book at the 13th Annual Texas Word Wrangler Festival—benefiting the Giddings Public Library and Cultural Center—I had to say YES! This resulted in a two-hour drive, a two-night stay … and a lot of fun. Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car loves a good road trip!

Author Jonathan Oliver poses with staff members of the Giddings Public Library.

The first stop was an author visit where I spoke to third graders at Giddings Elementary School. I gave four presentations back-to-back, and after the last talk the teachers said they were having so much fun they didn’t want to leave! So, I stayed a bit longer, answering the many hilarious questions that the students had for me. It was AMAZING!

Thank you for the beautiful drawings and artwork, St. Paul Serbin students!

My second school visit took me to a beautiful facility with the most gorgeous cemetery nestled in a secluded, rural area. There, I gave two presentations for K-5th graders at St. Paul Serbin Lutheran School, and the kindergartners presented me with a stack of colorful, beautiful artwork. I love receiving handmade drawings such as this, and I’ll keep them forever.

The next day was full of book sales at the library. School after school poured through the doors as students were brought by the busload for field trips to meet the authors. The children lined up for autographs, bookmarks and books. I signed one girl’s book and wrote “Be Amazing!”—as I always do—and she nudged her friend, whispering, “Can you beeee-lieeeeve it? She wrote ‘Be Amazing’ in my book!” My feet were aching but my heart was full!

“A Little Bit of Nonsense” was there!

This year, it was Alan Bourgeois’s idea to add a new Saturday event to the festival, complete with food trucks, snow cones, cotton candy, kiddie train rides, a jumpy-bouncy house, and MORE book sales. Alan is founder of the Texas Association of Authors and is a long-time supporter of the Texas Word Wrangler Festival; his efforts helped the library create what we all hope will be a new Saturday tradition. I invited Randy Blair to bring his art car, “A Little Bit of Nonsense,” to the festival, allowing visitors to see and touch a REAL art car up close. Randy and his car were a hit!

One of the best results of this weekend event was rubbing elbows with the other featured authors. I met so many smart, creative professionals, and it was wonderful to exchange ideas and knowledge. It was an amazing weekend full of irreplaceable moments, and I’m glad I was welcomed and honored by the warmth of the people of Giddings, Texas.

Cick here to see the WORD WRANGLER festival website.

Below I’ll post as many photos as I can of these talented writers who were in attendance with me.

Kat Kronenberg of Austin, Texas is author of “Dream Big,” and her next book “Love Big” will arrive soon.

Here I am with Harry Capers of Sugar Land, Texas, author and illustrator of the “Dino Buddies” series of children’s books.

Andrew Fairchild of Texas City, Texas is an award-winning author of many children’s books.

Kathleen Shields wowed the children with her “Hamilton Troll” series and other books, too.

Jonathan Oliver (shown here with his mom) is a stay-at-home father and author of “Joy In the Journey.”

P.G. Shriver is author of the “Sally The Travelin’ Saddle” series and many more books.

Mystery writer Kathryn Lane spoke to 100+ students in Giddings, Texas.

Carolyn Stovall is author of the award-winning cookbook, “A Texas Gal Cooks” (I bought a copy myself!), and “Granny Ozark’s Treats.”

Angela Castillo and Jamie Foley are co-authors of the “Busy Moms Guide To” series as well as middle grade and young adult books of their own.

© 2020 Cathey Graham Nickell
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